Local communities celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Cities and organizations across the metro came together Monday in song, dance and praise to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Events began early as volunteers fanned throughout the city to participate in various community service efforts. A variety of events, including a clergy prayer breakfast, an afternoon community forum and an evening scholarship banquet were sprinkled throughout the day.

The holiday culminated in an evening celebration where hundreds packed Friendship Baptist Church. Monday marked the nation’s 26th national observance of the slain civil rights leader’s birthday. King would have turned 83 on Sunday.

In the Northland, a crowd gathered at the John Gano Memorial Chapel on the campus of William Jewell College for the 28th annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Liberty.

This year’s event focused on youth, including the guest speaker, Patricia Okonta, a 2011 graduate from Liberty High School.

Okonta told the crowd she learned about King when she was 6 years old.

She was in the first grade and elated to be off from school on a snowy January day. She wanted to watch her favorite TV show, but her parents were watching a biography about King.

She said her parents explained to her what people had faced as well as the great things that King had done.

“They also told me how Martin Luther King had paved the way so that a girl like me could do whatever my heart desired,” she said.

Now a freshman at Yale University, she said that she has realized that if she has the same emphasis on education, faith and drive as King, she, too, can change the world.

Cecelia Robinson, chair of the program, said organizers wanted to focus on the youth because they are the future.

“We will be looking forward to these young people to be the ones who make the change that we want to see in society,” she said.

Making a difference was a message also shared at the annual King celebration held in Kansas City, Kan.

Keynote speaker the Rev. Major Lewis Jemison, of St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Okla., urged community members to follow King’s lead.

Jemison told residents to put aside differences for the future of all. But it takes dedication and time, he said.

“Not just a day, but an attitude. Not just a day but a commitment. Not just a day but involvement in the lives of those who can’t pull themselves up,” he said.

The event provided a key opportunity for those attending to help give back to the community. Every year event organizers ask those attending to dig in their pockets and donate to a scholarship program for Wyandotte County students.

Schagle High School teacher Keith Jones provided the proof that the program is paying dividends in the community.

Jones told those gathered that he received a King scholarship and it helped him earn a bachelor’s degree from Florida A&M University. After graduation, he returned home and started teaching and mentoring young men.

“It helped me to get me on my journey to where I am today,” Jones said.

The mass celebration at Friendship Baptist, legacy of King was celebrated in dance, song and a plea for increased civic and political engagement.

Thomas W. Dortch Jr. told the packed sanctuary that was important to honor King’s life by volunteering in their communities and to mentor youth.

“Children are the greatest resource we have,” Dortch said.

He also said that the political and social gains realized by King and others are currently at risk and it was vital for this generation to become more civically engaged.

Clergy also used the program to urge the crowd to support a 1/8-cent sales tax petition initiative that would to address blight, economic development, infrastructure and neighborhood stabilization. The Urban Summit is spearheading the campaign because they said the city’s urban core has been long neglected.

Earlier in the evening, Sam Abrams, a 16-year-old student at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy, said it was critical that today’s youth band together and fulfill King’s vision of unity and racial equality.

“It is my generation’s duty to prove Dr. King right, to treat all people equally,” Abrams said. “Let it be our prayer that my generation and those after mine will be able to descent from Dr. King’s mountain, and cross into the promised land of freedom and friendship.”